Juliette Kayye

In Mideast, the kings are all right

By Juliette Kayye
March 7, 2011

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I WAS born in Los Angeles, so I grew up believing that there was deep meaning in Hollywood awards ceremonies. It’s part of the genetic disposition there; think Red Sox nation with tighter abs.

So, at the same time the world watched the social media phenomenon help bring down autocrats in the Middle East, and stir unrest throughout the region, the powerful story of King George VI of Britain and the speech therapist who helped him overcome a stutter swept the Oscars and took home the Best Picture award. “The King’s Speech’’ trounced “The Social Network.’’

Take a closer look, though, and the first Best Picture Oscar awarded to a film about royalty may have actually been prescient. The social network revolutions have yet to dethrone the kings. In the Arab world, monarchies may be the most stable alternative to ruthless dictators, military juntas, or simple chaos currently available. For now they have been serving as a much-needed anchor for a US foreign policy seeking to be on the right side of history without undermining our strategic or economic interests.

As the dictators in Tunisia and Egypt were summarily ousted and Khadafy in Libya tries to hang on, the Arab monarchies are (for now) weathering the storm, aided by their own political responsiveness and a healthy dose of US support. In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Morocco, and Jordan, the royals are adapting to calls for modernity with steps towards reform, not defensiveness.

As the world watches Libya’s leader crack up, the Arab royals are making quiet concessions on their own: Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud’s reform-minded oped last month in the New York Times, King Abdullah of Jordan’s suggestion that he will cede some power to parliament, and Abu Dhabi’s crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan hosting Obama-style town hall meetings to hear from constituents.

This is not to say that the survival of the monarchs represents anything close to the triumph of democracy sought by Arab youthful protestors. But jobs, food, education, and a voice to build a pathway towards a less-shameful future are the real demands, and monarchies, especially ones that seem to be more responsive to constitutional reforms and the sharing of power, may provide a path there.

While any analysis of the unfolding events could be in error by the end of today, the royal leaders (for now) do have some common characteristics.

Monarchs aren’t hypocrites: Say what you want about a king, he doesn’t pretend to be a man of the people. And perhaps that is why the Arab monarchs still enjoy a certain amount of respect by their subjects. Indeed, the fact that royals do not pretend to be democratic ironically protects them from any notion that they are representatives of the people. It puts the royal families above the political fray, so that they can present themselves as steering a path for their nation without getting caught up in bureaucratic wrangling. After all, democratically elected Arab leaders such as Egypt’s Mubarak were a farce; though elected, he never was legitimate. Royals have no such pretense.

Monarchies are rich: The fact that many of the royal leaders reign in oil-rich countries doesn’t hurt. Only in Saudi Arabia could King Abdullah recently announce a $10 billion investment for young people to buy houses, start businesses, and support families. Many of the Gulf nations, tax-free zones for citizens, already support the equivalent of a royal welfare program. Royal wealth is obscene, but it’s also more readily shared.

Monarchs take the long view: Maybe because they imagine themselves to be serving a family line more than their own personal interest, monarchs seem more willing to do what is necessary to respond to popular unhappiness. They seem less attached to the fiction that their people love them than those who claim power by virtue of a mythical popular assent.

Arab monarchs are not saints; they can be as ruthless as their autocratic counterparts. But as the dynamics in the Arab world continue to unfold, it’s essential (for now) that success be measured in economic reforms, peaceful political participation, and responsive government. It should not be considered a failure if, at the end of the day, the royals still stand. Change may not take the form of a democratically elected president. Mubarak had that title, and see where it got Egypt. Our goal is for these Arab leaders to reflect the needs of their people and to respect their goals, regardless of the government structure. The administration’s quiet diplomacy to move the royals — who are often young and accessible enough to be responsive — toward reform serves the Arab people, and ours, very well.

Juliette Kayyem, a guest columnist, is former homeland security adviser for Massachusetts and most recently served as assistant secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security.